Sue Kedgley: Managing stress - let's get flexible

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Employers should encourage different working arrangements among staff to reduce peak-hour congestion.

Flexible starting times for workers would relieve road congestion and crowding on public transport.  Photo / Sarah Ivey
Flexible starting times for workers would relieve road congestion and crowding on public transport. Photo / Sarah Ivey

One of the many delights of working from home is that you don't have to wrestle with early-morning rush-hour traffic.

While most car commuters begin their day with their blood pressure rising and their frustration levels escalating as they sit helplessly in long traffic queues, those of us who work from home can chill out reading the newspaper, sipping coffee, going for a walk or otherwise limbering up for the working day.

By avoiding the morning and evening peak-hour commute, we not only reduce our stress levels; we save ourselves a couple of hours a day, so we are that much more productive than our colleagues who commute to work by car each day.

This makes me wonder why more effort isn't being made to ease traffic congestion by encouraging more people to work from home, or to work more flexible hours that avoid peak-hour traffic jams.

For the reality is that Auckland's congestion is caused by the simple fact that everyone is trying to get to work at the same time (and most people are still using cars to do so).

If we staggered the hours we work, or better still worked from home, peak hour congestion would significantly reduce. And as any traffic planner will tell you, reducing peak-hour traffic by just a small amount, say 5 per cent, would make a dramatic difference - as we all notice during school holidays when traffic reduces by about 5 per cent.

So it surprises me that, in all the debate about Auckland's traffic congestion, and what can be done about it, I haven't seen anyone advocate the simple, inexpensive solution of encouraging more flexible working hours right across the Auckland region, and encouraging people to work from home - even if it's only for a day a week.

With so much technology at our fingertips, it's surprising, frankly, that more employees aren't encouraged to work remotely from home for part of the week. It's surprising, too, that there's still an outmoded expectation in many workplaces that everyone should work more or less the same working hours, and arrive at work at the same time.

Obviously, flexible work arrangements won't work in all workplaces. There are some, like retail, that require most employees to work the same hours. But most could allow employees more say about their hours of work, and a greater degree of flexibility.

Some innovative businesses are leading the way, and actively embracing flexible working practices and remote working. But most are not, which is why our roads are clogged with peak-hour congestion every morning.

The low take-up of flexible working practices is puzzling, when we have legislation on the books that gives employees with family responsibilities the right to request flexible working arrangements, such as reduced hours, different starting times, compressed working weeks, or working from home.

The legislation that allows this, the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Hours bill) began its life as my own private member's bill.

The business community (and the National Party) vigorously opposed it when it was selected from the parliamentary ballot. They argued that allowing more flexible working arrangements would be the end of the world as we know it, and would impose a huge, unwelcome burden on business. Quite a few businesses threatened to move their operations overseas if the bill was passed.

When the bill passed into law in 2008, and the sky did not fall in, opposition to it trickled away, and employers gradually began to acknowledge that flexible working arrangements had all sorts of benefits for business.

Staff who were given more control over the hours they worked, felt trusted and respected rather than micro-managed, and were more productive and happier as a result. Staff morale improved, there was less absenteeism and staff turnover, and improved employee motivation and loyalty.

And many staff said even small changes like starting earlier so they could pick up their children from school, or avoid rush-hour congestion, made a huge difference in their lives.

When a Department of Labour survey confirmed these advantages, the National government decided to extend the law to cover all employees, and this is included in its new Employment Relations bill.

So if flexible working arrangements, and working from home, can not only reduce peak-hour traffic congestion, but also improve staff morale, and help to modernise our workplaces and make them more productive, why aren't they more widely embraced?

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

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